Review of “They called it shell shock”

They called it shell shock: combat stress in the First World War
by Dr. Stefanie Linden
published by Helion & Company, 2016 in the Wolverhampton Military Studies collection
Hardback glossy 249pp, bibliography, index, list of illustrations
ISBN 978 1 911096 35 1
Cover price: not stated but publisher says £25

Before I move on to discuss “They called it shell shock”, just a musing on Great War books and pricing at present. This is another beautifully produced, full sized, glossy paper hardback; a heavy weight in your hand. How can it sell at £25 (or less) when others are producing lower production quality books priced the same or somewhat higher? Has Helion worked out a groundbreaking cost/price model, or is is trading at lower margins? Only they will know and I hope it is the former, for this is another in a stream of very good work. They are making the academic press, whose output is often priced three or four times that of Helion’s, look very silly and making strong pieces of research and writing very accessible. Long may it continue.

Dr Stefanie Linden’s “They called it shell shock” deals with a complex subject: one that is often now conflated with combat and post-trauma stress concepts such as PTSD. Drawing upon the records of the leading hospitals that dealt with shell shock cases, and in particular the 600-plus individual case notes at the National Hospital at Queen’s Square in London, she has produced a readable and fascinating account.

There were, and are, considerable challenges in terms of understanding, diagnosing and treating these cases. Linden explains the pre-war and ongoing developments tussling with notions of physical or organic causes, and increasingly with psychological causes, of curious and often distressing physical and mental behaviours. The symptoms exhibited by  patients varied enormously, and to my surprise also varied by period of time and even by nationality of the soldiers concerned. Symptoms in a man could disappear in an instant; they could return; they could change over time; they could remain with a man until his death. Many approaches were developed at the National Hospital, at the specialist units at the Maudslay and Maghull Hospitals and at their counterparts in France and Germany, with results that varied from miracle cures to apparent failure. They included rest and physical exercise; “persuasion” (an interesting phrase that covers a range of efforts to change behaviour); and that rather chilling method of applying electrical shock. We are provided with numerous personal examples from the records, from the “old soldiers” of 1914 all the way through to the later-war conscripts.

Well illustrated and with interesting biographical detail of the many doctors involved, “They called it shell shock” is at once a solid piece of research with all the academic hallmarks, and something that  the layman such as me can grasp. Excellent.

Buy it